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Radioactive Waste Still Gets Dumped

Safety: Health officials cite U.S. law in allowing disposal. Judge had set aside a similar state rule.


SACRAMENTO -- State health officials said Thursday that they're continuing to permit companies and researchers to dump low-level radioactive waste at landfills, despite a judge's ruling last month that seemed to prohibit such dumping.

Department of Health Services Director Diana M. Bonta said that although the state judge struck down a state regulation permitting the dumping, federal law allows it as long as the waste has the lowest "reasonably achievable" level of radiation, not to exceed 25 millirems a year, which is roughly equal to two and a half chest X-rays.

In November, acting without a public hearing, the health services department adopted a regulation that followed the federal standard.

But Superior Court Judge Gayle Ohanesian of Sacramento, ruling on a lawsuit by the anti-nuclear group Committee to Bridge the Gap, concluded that the state failed to properly follow the California Environmental Quality Act and deemed the regulation invalid.

Under questioning Thursday by state senators, Bonta acknowledged that despite the ruling, the state continues to permit operators to abandon research sites with low-level radiation and dispose of waste once they comply with what essentially is the same standard.

"The vast majority are going to be extremely low-level," Bonta said, adding that the radiation levels could be as low as the normal background level of radiation in the environment, to 1 or 2 millirems above normal background levels.

She and other health department officials said that despite the judge's ruling, industrial, medical and academic operators of such facilities continue to seek permission to abandon their sites, and the state must act on those requests.

However, Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) said she was "shocked" that the state continues to allow operators to decommission their sites and dispose of their waste, given the judge's ruling.

"Essentially, what they're doing is the same thing the judge said they should not be doing, but calling it a different name," Romero said.

"If they're not defying [the ruling], it is pretty close. I was stunned. They're playing fast and loose with the facts."

Romero accused the department of "deregulating" the dumping of radioactive waste.

She also criticized the state for adhering to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission standard of 25 millirems, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recommended tougher restrictions.

Romero said she fears such debris is being deposited in the Puente Hills landfill, which is in her district and is the nation's largest general dump.

Romero and Sen. Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica) are carrying legislation to restrict dumping and to track where such material is deposited.

Bonta said the Davis administration may agree to legislation that would impose a stricter standard.

Three states -- Massachusetts, Maine and New Jersey -- have a stricter standard.

By agreeing to add a standard by legislation rather than regulation, the state could avoid having to comply with the judge's order that it complete an environmental impact report, a process that could take years.

California has no licensed dump for low-level radioactive waste, and must ship such material to one of the handful of dumps in other states.

Daniel Hirsch, president of Bridge the Gap, said he is considering returning to court to force the department to cease decommissioning such facilities until it follows state law by properly adopting a regulation.

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